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Is carbon capture a good idea? Or adding a problem?

Occasional Observer

People are finally coming to realize that climate change is being caused primarily by the ever increasing concentration of global warming gases in the atmosphere. But what should we do about this? The obvious answer is to cut way back on the use of fossil fuels which, when burned, produce these gases, especially carbon dioxide.

More and more there is discussion of collecting the exhaust from power plants and pumping it, under pressure, deep underground into depleted oil and gas wells or other mined facilities. While this would only collect a tiny fraction of the global warming gases being emitted into the atmosphere it might show the world that we could continue to use fossil fuels for the indefinite future — or so the fossil fuel industries would like us to think. They tell us that this sequestration would also save us countless jobs and provide many new ones as well.

One factor that leaves me suspicious of ”carbon sequestration” is the way its proponents speak of “carbon” and “carbon dioxide” almost interchangeably. Actual carbon could be buried in the ground without danger but not CO2, which may trigger earthquakes and/or pollute the groundwater, creating carbonic acid, and depending on what other ingredients were in the exhaust, more dangerous chemicals. Even if suitable underground space could be found (I have my doubts), what will keep it underground indefinitely and not escaping? Giant screw-on caps? The history of leakage from oil and gas wells is not encouraging. And what about the cost of the  equipment for capturing and storing the gas? Perhaps it’s time to look at some other alternatives than high pressure injection of CO2 deep into the ground.

When I was a high school student our class used electricity to turn water, H2O, into hydrogen and oxygen. Mightn’t a similar method be used to break down carbon dioxide, CO2, into its elements? The oxygen could escape into the atmosphere (where it might do some good) and the carbon collected for various purposes.  While there may be a limit to the number of golf clubs and tennis racquets we need, new uses for carbon are being discovered all the time, especially as a building material. And were there an enormous surplus, so what? We could bury it safely, unlike CO2.

The real problem would be the miscellaneous ingredients in the exhaust: arsenic, sulphur, hydrogen, assorted volatile organic compounds, and whatever else had been contained in the raw material being burned. Some of  these various ingredients might do significant harm were they buried deep in the ground.

Perhaps our excellent physicists, chemists  and, engineers could find a way to collect or dispose of these ingredients in a harmless way.

I’m an architect not a scientist and I’m sure that my oversimplified idea has enough wrong with it to be very unlikely if not totally impossible to implement. A prominent chemist once belittled my suggestion and said whatever else its failings it would be much too expensive to even consider. But he admitted he knew of no example of anyone trying to do something like this. So how could he be so sure?

The archaic method of using plants, especially large trees, to collect carbon dioxide, consume the carbon and release oxygen back into the atmosphere seems ideal — except that in the modern world there is too much carbon dioxide being produced and not enough plant material to sop it all up.

Congressman Bruce Westerman (R, Ark.) has introduced a bill, (H.R.2639) The Trillion Trees Act, that would among other things use trees to capture greenhouse gases. The Bill currently has 68 Republican and three Democratic co-sponsors. However, nearly 100 environmental organizations oppose the bill considering it largely a public relations ploy to divert attention from Republican legislators’ unwillingness to curb fossil fuel emissions. Also, the trees being proposed are tiny saplings which would take many decades to capture significant amounts of CO2. Meanwhile the bill also proposes to cut down healthy, mature trees  all over the country solely for the benefit of the logging industry.

Even more significant than massive tree planting would be stopping  the burning and cutting down of mature forests all around the world, in many cases turning the land into farms as is happening in the Amazon, southeast Asia, and west Africa. The colossal wildfires that have ravaged Australia and the western United States in recent years have demolished billions of mature trees while at the same time filling the atmosphere with more greenhouse gases, and toxic air.

If the Biden administration’s environmental program proceeds  according to plan, the US will have stopped using fossil fuels to a large extent by 2050, perhaps sooner. So engineering solutions such as breaking down or burying carbon dioxide may then be academic. The old fashioned climate control method of massive tree plantings will become the way of the future again.

Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.

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